At 18, Karisa Solt will be the youngest student ever to graduate from New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).
Karisa, who will graduate on Jan. 30 with a degree in Biomedical engineering, is also the university’s valedictorian. She’s already been accepted on a full scholarship to medical school, and what’s more, she’s accomplished all this having never attended high school and having gone just two years to a grammar school.
How did she do it? “I was home schooled,” Karisa says, “which was the best thing to ever happen to me.”
She started taking NJIT classes when she was 14: physics, computer science and English. A year later, at 15, she was admitted to NJIT’s Albert Dorman Honors College, which offers students special classes, seminars and colloquia. Karisa’s now graduating with a near perfect cumulative average of 3.996. The graduation ceremony is scheduled for Jan. 30, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark.
Karisa grew up in Newark, were her father was the pastor of the Evangelical Free Church. She lead worship there when a child, and taught Sunday school. Since Newark’s public schools were poor, and private schools prohibitively expensive, her mother decided to home school Karisa. She was taught at home for all grades except first and sixth grades.
Karisa and her family recently moved out of Newark and into Quakerstown, Penn., where her father, Marc, opened an Evangelical Free Church in Allentown, Penn. Her mother, Colleen, works with the women of the church. Karisa runs the church’s youth group. Her father’s parents were missionaries in Costa Rica, where he grew up. Karisa has three younger brothers.
But when the family lived in Newark, her mother home schooled Karisa. She had school for four hours a day, from say 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Karisa recalls, after which she’d be free to pursue her other interests: soccer, the saxophone, the clarinet.
Her mother was a progressive yet rigorous teacher. She could listen to music while she learned; her mother had read that music stimulated the imagination. And while her mother read to her, Karisa could play with play dough, or sketch, or paint; her mother read that that, too, was also stimulating. She was free to do her homework anytime during the day or evening. But that’s where the progressiveness ended and the rigor began. For if her homework was not completed before bedtime, on the following day Karisa would have to do twice the work.
Her mother hewed to a demanding curriculum for science and math. So much so that when Karisa started at NJIT, her first math class was calculus 1 honors: even though she never had trigonometry or calculus at home.
Learning at home was a pleasure, Karisa recalls. Her mother, for instance, had her write reports about the family vacations. “But I wrote about things I loved,” Karisa says, “ like scuba diving, so the reports were fun. In second grade, I did first paper on jet engines. It was really interesting.”
Her mother limited her TV watching to educational programs. She learned to read early, at 4, rifling her way through the Black Stallion series and the Doctor Doolittle books. When she was 12, she read Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
“Teaching Karisa at home was a joy,” recalls her mother, Colleen Solt. “Karisa had an insatiable desire to learn, all the time. All I had to really do was to do put the material in front of her.”
Karisa’s learning was so fast paced, Colleen recounts, that she would go through two levels of math in one year. Karisa read voraciously, bringing home armloads of classic book from the local library.
“Whatever Karisa was interested in,” Colleen says, she’d read about. If she were interested in horses she’d read everything about horses. She loved to learn -- she still does -- and she always viewed learning not as a chore but as a challenge.
Now, at 18, Karisa is on her way to medical school, where she intends to specialize in orthopedic surgery or neurology. As a bio-medical engineering major NJIT, she did research in neural engineering, and she spent a day shadowing an orthopedic surgeon. “It was a very powerful experience,” she says.
She’d ultimately like to integrate her biomedical engineering background with medicine. Surgeons need new medical devices, she says, but since they aren’t engineers they can’t build them. Engineers often don’t know the needs of surgeons; so don’t build medical devices for them. “I’d like to act as a liaison between the two fields,” she says,” and make the devices surgeons need. That would be my contribution to medical science.”